Give me five: Reasons Bears will/won’t win NFC

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The countdown to the start of the 2009 campaign is rapidly dwindling. Although the NFL has become a 12-month sport in the past two decades, in my mind the official kickoff for the new season does not begin with free agency, the draft, or OTAs. It starts with training camp, which is now just five days away for the Bears.

That’s right, we’re finally less than a week away from the Bears dominating the headlines and displacing casual Cubs and White Sox fans from the diamond back to the gridiron. We’re no longer speaking of Bourbonnais in terms of weeks or months. It’s this week, and the Bears will be in town and on the field Friday.

I was going to wait until training camp began before I started writing my featured blog entries — entries I’ve placed in my “Chalk Talk” category — but I can’t wait any longer. The anticipation has been building for far too long. Besides, there will be so much going on that my time will be consumed by reporting and analyzing the news from Olivet Nazarene University beginning on Friday.

The Bears have been generating a lot of buzz since April 2, both locally and nationally, and we all know why. Acquiring a Pro Bowl quarterback to fill a void that’s been haunting a franchise for decades will certainly create a stir. Not only has the acquisition fueled high hopes and expectations in Chicago, but it has others across the country thinking big, too. Take Peter King’s power rankings from May, for example.

My expectations were already high before the trade. I was expecting one playoff victory at the least, even if Kyle Orton were under center. Now, I will boldly say that anything less than a final four appearance — a spot in the NFC Championship game — would be a disappointment in my eyes. There are few reasons why I couldn’t foresee the Bears fighting for a Super Bowl berth, but also some that would make sense.

Here are five reasons the Bears will get back to the Super Bowl in 2009, and five reasons why they won’t.

The Bears will win the NFC conference championship…

1. …because they finally have a good quarterback under center.

This is the most obvious reason why the Bears could go the distance this year. The acquisition of Jay Cutler from the Broncos in April has had this city abuzz for months now. When you think back to how many times Kyle Orton overthrew one of his receivers on a deep pass last year, wide open receivers at that, you can’t help but wonder how many of those passes would have resulted in touchdowns or would have at least prolonged the drive and kept the defense off the field if they had been thrown by Cutler. Cutler throws one of the best deep balls in the league and when you pair him with speedster Devin Hester, you can’t help but grin at how many times those two may cause you to jump from your couch in excitement. Cutler also possesses a rare mobility not seen from the quarterback position in Chicago for many years. He’ll keep plays alive by moving around the pocket and he can throw on the run. If nothing else, the Bears’ offense under Cutler’s leadership will give the defense a chance to collect themselves on the sideline and that should keep them fresh throughout games as well as the entire season.

2. …because their offensive line is deep, versatile, and talented.

Cutler and offensive lineman Orlando Pace will be linked together in Chicago for a long time, no matter how short Pace’s tenure is with the Bears. The reason is because both were acquired by the Bears on April 2, Cutler through a trade and Pace via free agency. The fact that a seven-time Pro Bowl tackle, who was taken first overall by the Rams in the 1997 draft, being signed by the Bears flew largely under the radar helps explain just how significant the Cutler deal was. The Bears also added Frank Omiyale and Kevin Shaffer, and will have second-year pro Chris Williams back from injury, to help improve the offensive line and they’ll now have a deep group of players which will help add competition to the position in training camp. The new players will not only improve stability across the line, but they’ll also help Olin Kreutz, who, by all accounts, did not have a great season last year. Kreutz will have less to worry about trying to help those around him and can focus more on his job.

3. …if Matt Forte doesn’t succumb to the sophomore slump or suffer an injury.

Forte came on strong and quickly onto the national scene in his rookie season last year, which started with a great performance against the Colts on national TV. He became so valuable in both the running game and as a receiver out of the backfield that the Bears couldn’t find the right time to take him off the field to give him a rest. For those stat geeks out there, there has been analysis that those running backs who are used too much one season face a greater probability of suffering an injury or a decrease in production the following year. I personally don’t buy into that theory. I don’t think there’s any correlation between what a guy does in consecutive seasons. What I do know is that if the Bears don’t cut down his carries and give more playing time to backup Kevin Jones, Forte certainly can break down from the amount of touches he has this year, not last. There’s also what many have dubbed the “sophomore slump” that Bears fans might have to worry about. It’s when a player’s production drops significantly in his second season after a breakout rookie year. As long as Forte gives a solid, consistent effort, I think the Bears will be in good shape.

4. …because Rod Marinelli will help improve a terrible pass rush.

It’s a debatable topic, but I’d have to argue that the biggest problem the Bears had last year was their lack of a pass rush. Tampa Bay’s Brian Griese dropped back to pass 67 times in a game against the Bears last year and yet he was sacked zero times. Enough said about that atrocity. Rushing the passer is one of the most important fundamentals in winning football games. You cannot be a good football team if you can’t rush the passer. My favorite case in point is Super Bowl XLII, when the New York Giants handed the New England Patriots their only loss of the season. The Giants held the Patriots’ offense — considered by many, but not by me, to be one of, if not the greatest offense of all time — to just 14 points. They achieved this by harassing Tom Brady all day and making life miserable for him. Marinelli may be one of the worst head coaches of all time, but he could be one of the best defensive line coaches ever and he will immediately make the Bears’ pass rush more respectable. I’m confident that the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers will find himself on his back looking up at the stars in Week 1, and that trend will continue throughout the season.

5. …if Brian Urlacher’s off-season dedication rebounds him to Pro Bowl status.

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo has commended Urlacher for his off-season dedication and is confident that the middle linebacker can return to Pro Bowl status. With Pro Bowler Lance Briggs lining up on one side of him and newcomer Pisa Tinoisamoa, who led the Rams in tackles last year, presumably lining up on the other side, Urlacher will have less pressure to perform and make plays sideline-to-sideline as he did in his earlier years. If Urlacher returns to Pro Bowl form, it’s likely the Bears will have one of the best linebacker trios in the league and Bears fans won’t have to worry about too many plays getting past the second level to the inexperienced safeties.

The Bears won’t win the NFC conference championship…

1. …if Tommie Harris doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

When the Bears drafted Harris to play the three-technique in Lovie Smith’s cover-two defense, there were extremely high hopes for him. Expectations had him panning out to be one of the great defensive linemen in this generation, in the mold of Warren Sapp. After a few good seasons early in his career, Harris’ knee problems have limited him considerably and he is currently on his way to becoming a flash in the pan if he can’t rebound and stay healthy. As I mentioned previously, the pass rush — and the play of the defensive line in general — is imperative toward success in the NFL. The Bears need Harris to get up the field and be disruptive to both the quarterback and the run game. If he doesn’t, we could see more of the same defensive struggles from a year ago.

2. …if the free safety position doesn’t resolve itself.

I have serious reservations about this position. The free safety is like the quarterback of the defense, and it was something that Mike Brown was awfully good at in his heyday. Few safeties in the league have as much football intelligence as Brown and none of those players are on the Bears. So, somebody will have to be responsible for knowing what is going on at all times, and I sincerely doubt that Craig Steltz is that guy. Steltz is said to possess good football instincts, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Not only does the free safety have to know how to align every player on the defense as well as each of those players’ responsibilities, but he’s also the last line of defense and you want to feel comfortable with who is back there. In an ideal world, Corey Graham would figure out how to play the position and he would man that job. He’s got the best skills — aside from Danieal Manning, who just flopped at the position — of any of the players competing for the job. However it pans out, if the Bears don’t get strong play from the free safety position, they’ll be in some trouble.

3. …if Nathan Vasher’s best days are behind him.

He used to be known as “The Interceptor,” A guy who had a nose for the football and was developing into a feared cornerback. Two plays stand out in my mind when I think of Vasher. First, it was the then-NFL-record, 108-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown against the 49ers in 2005 that put him on the national stage. Second, it was the very next week against the Panthers — whom the Bears’ defense smothered to the tune of 8 sacks, by the way, all by the defensive line (hint hint) — when Vasher had two interceptions. Following one of those two picks, he stood up and began doing a hula dance, signifying that it was his year to be in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii… and he was right. Since that year, he has slowly fallen apart. He missed three starts in 2006, 14 starts in 2007, and 9 starts last year. I, for one, am not ready to count on him for this year until he can prove he can stay healthy and be productive. His only two good years were his first two in the league, in 2004 and 2005. If he can’t rebound, the Bears would need Graham or rookie D.J. Moore to step in and keep the defense in rhythm.

4. …if the wide receiver position is as big a hindrance as some fear it will be.

I’m not completely worried about the lack of experience at the wide receiver position. We’ve all heard the statistics that Earl Bennett, Brandon Rideau, and rookies Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox — four guys that could have some kind of role in the offense — have not registered an NFL reception yet. And we know that Rashied Davis’ hands were frustratingly bad last year. And many argue, myself included, that Devin Hester is not yet a No. 1 receiver and may never be one. However, with all that said, as long as these guys do two things: 1) run crisp routes, and 2) catch the ball when it is thrown to them, then there’s nothing to be afraid of this season. I believe great quarterbacks make good wide receivers, not the other way around. And it doesn’t take a great group of receivers for a team to win the Super Bowl. However, it does require competent receivers for a quarterback to mesh with and if Cutler’s cannon arm is too much for these guys, there could be a timing problem.

5. …if by some act of God, Cutler doesn’t pan out as expected.

I was never a Jay Cutler fan and I thought he was overrated from the moment he entered the league. But the guy is a Pro Bowl quarterback so he’s made a believer out of me. However, if for some reason he has a meltdown and takes too many chances and throws too many interceptions — basically, resembles Rex Grossman as ESPN’s KC Joyner said he would — then the Bears certainly won’t go very far. Cutler does take chances, though. He was second behind Brett Favre with 18 interceptions last year. That has to give Bears fans some pause. Because of Cutler’s achievements, though, and because he’s the anointed savior, I do think he’ll have a little bit longer honeymoon. However, if he starts making ill-advised throws that result in turnovers and the Bears are not winning as many games as they should be, the restlessness in Soldier Field will quickly pick up.

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